In looking back upon our time in Rome, I realize that some of my most treasured memories of the Eternal City are associated with activities that are free. We did pay for several must-sees, including the Borghese Gallery and the stairs to climb up the dome of St. Peter’s, but for the most part, we enjoyed the treasures of Rome without having to spend on entrance fees. Here are my recommendations for five fabulous free things you can do in Rome:
Go church hopping
Unlike in Florence, where we happily forked over the Euros for the 72-hour Firenze card for shorter lines to see the best art, in Rome we found a wealth of top-notch art and architecture in churches, absolutely free and often with nobody inside other than local worshippers. It was a real treat to be able to get up close and personal with paintings and sculptures and stare as long as we wanted without feeling guilty about holding up other visitors. The only church where you have to stand in line (and sometimes for hours) is St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. And it’s worth the wait, to see the fabulous interior, the dome from the inside, and Michelangelo’s Pieta. Michelangelo was only in his early twenties when he created the Pieta…amazing that at such a young age he was able to make marble come to life so beautifully. Although the whole piece is poetry in stone, the beautiful face of Mary held me utterly spellbound.
Before you visit Rome, make an itinerary and map for your church hopping based on advance research on the art and interiors you most want to see, because you cannot go even two blocks in Rome without coming upon yet another fabulous church, and if time is limited you’ll want to save it for the top works in your must-see list. My favorites, apart from St. Peter’s in the Vatican City, are Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli for Michelangelo’s Moses and the stunning ceiling, Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano for its beautiful interior, huge organ and dazzling ceiling, San Luigi dei Francesi for its trio of Caravaggio paintings on St. Matthew, and Sant’Iganzio Church for the gilding, colored marble and frescos in the opulent interior.
Tip: Look for a donation box by a work of art in a church. A small donation will light up the piece for photography and a better appreciation of details.
Take in the sights and sounds of the Via dei Corso
Our rental apartment in Rome was just off the Via dei Corso near the Piazza del Popolo. The only time we saw this street almost deserted was at 5 am, on the morning we left Rome. Many major sights are right off this main drag. It’s also a favorite street for locals to take their passeggiata. And finally it’s a major shopping destination as well. So it’s always abuzz (and that is an understatement!) with throngs and throngs of people. To add to the merriment, there are street performers, sidewalk artists, and walking vendors all trying to ply their craft or trade on this street. Walking up and down Via dei Corso was a daily source of immense entertainment for us while we were in Rome. If we were not constrained by time, I would have happily sat at an outside table on a cafe along this street all day, watching Rome happen all around me.
Tip: If you want to make your stroll even more enjoyable, pop in for some gelato artiginale at Fatamorgana, just off Via dei Corso between the Piazza del Popoli and the Spanish Steps. It’s some of the best gelato you’ll find in Rome!
Visit the morning market at Campo de’ Fieri
Start your day in Rome right with a visit to this morning market next to the Piazza Navona, where you’ll find fresh flowers, vegetables, fruit, cheeses, pasta, truffles, and olive oils and balsamic vinegar. We had freshly squeezed fruit juice, which was simply delicious, before picking up some cheese, fresh and dried fruit, and nuts for our stay. The market is held every morning except on Sundays, and after the market packs up, the cafes and restaurants that line the square are great spots for lunch if you are in the vicinity.
Visit the Pantheon
Of all the sights we visited in Rome, I thought the Pantheon was the most exciting. It’s a very cool circular structure topped by a concrete dome (that’s not reinforced!!!), an engineering marvel so unique that it is difficult to comprehend how it could have been built so many centuries ago. It prompted even the master Michelangelo to deem it “angelic and not human design.” I have read that the diameter of the inside is the same as the distance from the floor to the top of the dome. Two thousand years since it was built, it remains essentially preserved and is still in use today as a church.
The interior is fascinating, with the huge dome inlaid with sunken panels and the oculus at the top. The oculus is open and was structured as a source of light. It’s the only source of light, there are no windows in this huge building!
The Pantheon contains beautiful Corinthian columns and several tombs and chapels. The tops of the pillars are gorgeous.
Tip: We spent a whole morning at this gorgeous architectural marvel. To avoid crowds and have the time and space to truly appreciate it, go as early in the morning as you can. On a sunny day, you can get a nice sense for the light that streams in through the oculus.
Do a night walking tour of the major sights
One evening my husband and I had an early dinner and then did a leisurely walking tour of all the sights along the stretch from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum, including the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Fori Romano, the Fori Traiano, the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and the Colosseum. The lit up fountains look beautiful at night, as do the ancient monuments. From the Piazza Navona, we made a short detour. We walked over to the river Tiber at the Ponte Sant’Angelo to view Castel Sant’Angelo, which looked stunning at night. We then walked along the bridge to admire Bernini’s beautiful angel statues. The view of the lit up dome of St. Peter’s from this bridge is quintessential Rome: it’s a memory that I will carry with me forever. We then retraced our steps to the Piazza Navona to resume our walk toward the Colosseum. As my husband said afterwards, our day visits to the sights were to discover, learn and appreciate with the mind, the night tour was pure bliss for the heart and soul.
Tip: It takes longer than you think to do the whole tour so allow for at least three hours and carry water and a little snack. We felt perfectly safe walking around these sights at night: there were tons of people everywhere.
What are your favorite things to do in Rome? Comment below to respond!